Note: Reader Raimon correctly corrected my statement that Ford had F1 experience to draw upon for the GT40 program. It didn't. Ford wasn't active in Formula 1 until 1966 with Bruce McLaren—and the engine he used was based on one of the company's Indianapolis 500 engines.
Although it's absolutely an achievement to win Le Mans, I can never quite agree with the strange folklore that surrounds the Ford GT40 program. Yes, we all know that Ford wanted to buy Ferrari and that, just before the deal was completed, Il Commendatore himself backed out at the 11th hour.
Henry Ford II and other executives were so incensed at the $10 million deal going flat that Ford almost immediately decided to race—and beat—Ferrari at Le Mans.
What I don't get is the amazement people have that Ford was able to create the GT40 and win Le Mans—even in the '60s, Ford was a massive global company with race teams on every continent and sold hundreds of thousands of production cars annually. Ferrari, for all the magic, was a boutique automaker who hand-built dozens of vehicles per year—just enough to support its racing team, Scuderia Ferrari.
Ford's challenger for Le Mans, the GT40, wasn't some untested design. Ford could afford to develop the chassis in the UK, using a Lola Mk6 design as its base (they bought two for testing.) Ford could afford to develop a number of engines, using lessons learned from their experience in NASCAR, and the Indianapolis 500. Ford could also afford its pick of anyone for their team: with the likes of Carroll Shelby, Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, and John Wyer in its corner, failure was not likely.
In my book (metaphorical, not literal), Ford beating Ferrari at Le Mans is as much an achievement as an elephant stepping on an ant. By the time Ford won over Ferrari in 1966—in its third attempt, now with two factory teams—they'd spent millions and had engaged some of the best and brightest race car engineers, team managers, engine builders, and race drivers in the world. Hell, the winning car, entered by Shelby-American Inc., was driven by Chris Amon and the Bruce McLaren.
Its Le Mans wins are great and all, but I appreciate the GT40 for another reason: it helped make the Supervan possible.
By 1971, the GT40 was no longer committed to racing at Le Mans (that year was an all-out battle between Porsche and Ferrari), and so UK privateers Terry Drury Racing Cars had an interesting idea: to put GT40 running gear under a Mk1 Transit panel van and thrill crowds with an outlandish promotional machine.
I could say more about its outright performance, but it's not so hot these days—figure a 1/4 mile time on par with a Volkswagen Passat W8 4Motion Wagon.
Instead, take six minutes and watch Ford's official video on this beast of a van, and be happy that the company spent millions in order to create the engine, chassis, and brakes that turned this panel van into the world's first Supervan—simply a Transit shell over Le Mans-winning race car components.